Friday, April 07, 2006

What are the ALDA deans on about?

So, what are the ALDA deans commenting about? The Secretary of Education is asking for comments about accrediting agencies. In law, that means the American Bar Association. For many, many years, the ABA has accredited law schools. That is, they decide which ones are "kosher" enough to have their students take bar exams.

The American Bar Association has a governing board that adopts and modifies standards for law schools. They send out inspection teams to make sure that each law school that is already accredited still meets the standards. The teams do an in-depth inspection. Until very recently, this happened every seven years. Now it is going to happen on a less-intensive level every ten years. Still, it's pretty intense.

Law schools start getting ready for the inspection at least one year in advance. They begin a process known as the self-study. They appoint a committee. The committee members each are responsible for a portion of the report that must be written. The report is structured according to the division of the ABA standards. So there is a chapter on law school administration, a chapter on technology, and a chapter on library resources, a chapter on faculty, a chapter on the building, a chapter on finances, and so on. You can see it is a VERY BIG DEAL.

When it is time, the ABA has to field a group of volunteers from other schools, seven in all, to visit the school to be inspected. The school must host them at its expense and pay for their flights and expenses. Generally, they sort of wine and dine the inspectors, to roll out the red carpet. They make all sorts of documents available in multiple copies, extra computers and printers and connections handy for the inspectors.

And then, the American Association of Law Schools (AALS), has a separate set of standards, a bit more onerous than the ABA standards. Membership in the AALS is voluntary and is an honor for the school. If the school is also a member of AALS (most of them are), one of the ABA inspectors is also designated as the AALS inspector, and will check on whether the school meets those standards.

The standards of the ABA and the AALS, depending on whom you ask, are designed to ensure that law students are getting a fair education for their tuition dollar, and will be well-prepared for the practice of law. Or if you ask some disgruntled folks, the ABA and AALS standards are designed to ensure that law professors get the highest rate of pay for the lowest amount of effort possible. That outlook led to two consent decrees between the ABA and the Justice Department. At one point, the ABA actually collected information from all participating law schools as to the pay rates of the law professors. That information was shared and, according to the law suit brought alleging anti-trust violations, used to pressure the universities and law schools to bring their own professors' rate of pay up to par with the published rates. As part of the consent decree, the ABA no longer collects any information on pay rates.

Now, the ALDA deans, about whom we actually have very little clear information, are commenting to the Department of Education, in response to this Federal Register request on February 6, 2006, that nobody else noticed. They are saying that they think the ABA is still not doing a fair or good job accrediting law schools, and that law schools should be free entirely of standards. They argue that all the standards interfere with the dean's free hand in running each law school as an independent entity and makes them like little clones of each other.

In the first place, I would like to know how the ALDA deans knew about this call for comments when nobody else did. It is a very un-alerting notice; I would never have found it but for the ALDA deans' comments, then the National Law Journal statement that it was comments in response... I am a suspicious, unpleasant minded git.

In the second place, I do not think they make a good case at all that the ABA is not looking out for the students' or the public's interest with their standards or accrediting efforts. In fact, the first time these deans cropped up, it was complaining about being required to meet affirmative action standards. So hearing them complain about the ABA forcing them to meet standards and that it interferes with the way they want to run their schools actually makes me pretty relieved. If the ABA standards are interfering with them discriminating against students, faculty or staff, gee, I think those standards are doing a darned good job of protecting the interests of the students and the public!

They also argue against any tenure (although they are quite tricksy with their argument -- they make it sound as though they are being even-handed and include deans in the same sweeping statement as faculty, clinicians and law librarians. But you have to read this statement very closely. More about that tomorrow!

This nice image of Spy vs. Spy from the old Mad Magazine is from

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